Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Rosemary Gaby
Peer Reviewed


1The history play

Historical fiction is so pervasive today on stage, television, film, and in the novel that it is easy to overlook how much our appetite for the genre owes to Shakespeare and the Elizabethan history play. Shakespeare has played a key role in building an audience for stories about English history and through the centuries his fictionalized versions of historical figures and events have, rightly or wrongly, helped to shape the way we imagine the past.

In 1623, when Shakespeare's actor-friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell, gathered together thirty-six of his plays for publication in what we now call the First Folio, the plays were grouped as comedies, histories and tragedies. The ten plays described as "Histories" were based on the reigns of English kings from King John (1199-1216) to Henry VIII (1509-47). Although some of these plays were also known as tragedies, Shakespeare's contemporaries clearly thought they were significantly different from plays about more remote political figures like Julius Caesar, or legendary English kings like Cymbeline or Lear.

Nearly all of Shakespeare's history plays were written in the 1590s, and it seems that the vogue for staged histories, established by Shakespeare, was largely limited to this decade. The history play's popularity at this time has been associated with numerous factors. These include an increased sense of nationhood and patriotism after the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588), anxieties about the nation's political future during the final decade of Elizabeth's reign, and rapidly evolving ideas about historiography, but Shakespeare's personal interests and influence are also obviously important. Shakespeare was not the only Tudor writer of history plays, but he certainly dominated the field. His histories are experimental works, drawing upon chronicle-history materials and morality-play traditions to present a new dramatic form.

An ongoing saga

Henry IV, Part One was written sometime around 1596-7. It was part of a sequence of four plays, written between 1595 and 1599, covering the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V. Richard II focuses on the deposition of Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke's rise to power; the two parts of Henry IV chart both the dissension that accompanied Henry's reign and the preparations of Prince Hal for a more effective style of kingship; and Henry V shows what happened when Hal became king and made war against the French. Shakespeare's earlier history plays--the three Henry VI plays and Richard III--actually follow events after the reign of Henry V. Together, the two groups of plays (now often called "tetralogies") dramatize the fortunes of the English monarchy from, roughly, 1398 to 1485.

5The success of his first group of histories probably influenced Shakespeare's decision to embark upon a second sequence. It was a particularly sound move: Shakespeare's histories were good box office material. Henry IV, Part One became Shakespeare's most published play, appearing in seven solo "quarto" editions before the publication of his complete works in the First Folio. Perhaps the success of Henry IV, Part One led to the writing of its sequel: we simply do not know how Shakespeare planned the sequence, or even whether Henry IV was intended as one play or two from the start. It was never called Part One during Shakespeare's lifetime. In its first edition the title-page announces: The History of Henrie the Fourth; With the battell at Shrewsburie, betweene the King and Lord Henry Percy, surnamed Henrie Hotspur of the North. With the humorous conceits of Sir John Falstalffe. This title gives no indication that this is the first of three plays about Prince Hal; instead, attention is drawn to the more popular characters, Hotspur and Falstaff, and to the battle which forms the climax of the play.

The history plays inevitably have many characters in common and it is interesting to trace the fortunes of various figures from one play to another. Often the dialogue refers back to the material of earlier plays (in Henry IV the rebels are constantly harking back to the fact that Henry "put down" Richard II) and sometimes situations that develop in later plays are anticipated earlier. Towards the end of Richard II, the newly crowned Henry IV asks, "Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son?" (R2 TLN 2497) and Harry Percy ("Hotspur" in Henry IV) tells him about a recent meeting he had with the wayward Prince. Throughout Henry IV, Part One the audience is made aware of the impending rejection of Falstaff that concludes Part Two, and at certain moments Henry IV, Part Two looks ahead to the war with France that is dramatized in Henry V.

Henry IV, Part Two continues the story begun in Part One. It begins with the delivery of conflicting reports about the battle of Shrewsbury, delivered to Hotspur's "crafty-sick" father, Northumberland, and goes on to chart the quelling of further rebellion, the death of Henry IV, and Prince Hal's assumption of the crown. In many ways Part Two seems to repeat the material of Part One, but in a minor key. Hal spends less time on stage with Falstaff in Part Two, but his dying father still sees him as a rebellious prince until their climactic reconciliation scene towards the end of the play. Falstaff rushes to London from the Gloucestershire home of his friend, Justice Shallow, to greet the newly-crowned Henry V, but Hal publicly affirms his reformation by denying Falstaff and leaving him in the charge of the Lord Chief Justice. At the end of Part Two the epilogue promises to continue the story "with Sir John in it"; instead Henry V simply reports Falstaff's death, then moves on to dramatize Hal's victories in France.

Obviously the Henry plays are closely linked in terms of characters, tone and the story told. Nevertheless Part One can be happily read and performed on its own. Like many modern films with sequels that expand and develop the plot, the play works well as an individual entertainment and as a part of a larger story.

An unpredictable genre

In the histories, the tone of the drama--whether comic or tragic--depends largely upon the events being staged. Henry IV, Part One encompasses the tragic pathos of Hotspur's death, the thrill of Hal's battlefield valor, the intrigue of power politics, and the broad humor of the tavern scenes, not to mention a few, more lyrical moments. Some history plays--including Richard II which immediately preceded Henry IV, Part One--adhered largely to the conventions of tragedy, telling "sad stories of the death of kings" (R2 TLN 1516). The stories of kings like Henry IV and Henry V did not suit tragedy, however, so instead Shakespeare moved in a fresh direction. Henry IV, Part One shifts from verse to prose and from scenes based on serious historical events to scenes of anarchic comic fiction. For Shakespeare and his audience the history play was new dramatic territory where anything might happen.

10The openness of the genre in comparison with other forms is particularly evident with regard to the Gargantuan figure of Falstaff. His irreverent roguish spirit spilled over into another two histories and one comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor (supposedly written so that Queen Elizabeth could see Falstaff in love). In the history plays, Falstaff is a powerful and unpredictable force. Irrepressible in Henry IV, Part One, a potentially tragic figure at the end of Henry IV, Part Two, and recalled with pathos in Henry V, he can re-direct our responses to the historical story in many interesting ways. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, however, Falstaff's role is limited by the conventions of its comic genre. His roguish activities are contained within a smaller context and, although he retains some of his history-play incorrigibility, he is made to suffer gross indignities to meet the demands of comic justice. In Henry IV, Part One Falstaff has more room to move; the history play provided an environment that could accommodate his sprawl.

The English history plays defied some of the limitations of other genres, but they were based upon a relatively limited pool of stories. When the genre was revisited in later years, in plays like Shakespeare's Henry VIII (1613) and John Ford's Perkin Warbeck (1634), it was to dramatize events of the Tudor period which might not have been safely staged while Elizabeth I (the last Tudor monarch) was still on the throne. The genre enjoyed a relatively brief heyday, but Shakespeare's history plays have retained enormous popularity from the 1590s to the present day. Richard III andHenry V have been frequently filmed and all the histories have fared well in the theatre.

With their overt political focus, the history plays have attracted contrasting readings and met diverse cultural expectations for different times and places. Laurence Olivier's Henry V, filmed at the end of World War II and Kenneth Branagh's Henry V, filmed 45 years later, convey very different perspectives on war. Outside England the histories are much less likely to engender the kind of nationalistic pride with which they are often associated, but French, German and Japanese directors have found occasion to produce them nevertheless. The openness of the history play genre seems to have had a lot to do with the plays' durability. History plays raise questions about the construction of identity, about how social groups are formed and organized, about image making and ideological control, and about how power is exerted, contested, and manipulated at personal, local, and national levels. Approaches to these issues constantly change, but they remain of enduring and urgent concern.